The First Man-Machine
Poker Championship

Gauntlet thrown in man vs. computer poker challenge

By Richard Cairney and Ryan Smith

Poker champion Phil "The Unabomber" Laak will square off against a U of A-designed poker-playing computer program this summer.

June 11, 2007 - Edmonton - A poker-playing computer program developed at the University of Alberta will battle against a pair of poker kings in a $50,000 contest this summer.

Polaris, the reigning world champion computer-poker program, will challenge two of the sharpest poker players in the world, professionals Phil "The Unabomber" Laak and Ali Eslami. The two-day event will be staged in conjunction with the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence's annual conference, July 23 - 24 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver, B.C.

"This is a world first and, I hope, the beginning of something that will grow and become an annual event," said Jonathan Schaeffer, a team leader of the Polaris program.

Schaeffer, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence, believes the event is a natural evolution of the 1994 match between IBM's "Deep Blue" chess program and Gary Kasparov, the then-world chess champion.

"The difference is that chess is a game of perfect knowledge, meaning there is nothing hidden from the players. In poker you can't see your opponent's hand, and you don't know what cards will be dealt. This makes poker a much harder challenge for computer scientists from an artificial intelligence perspective," Schaeffer said.

The competition will feature four Texas Hold'em matches between Polaris and the two poker playing professionals. The tournament is designed to eliminate luck and focus on pure skill. In each match, Laak and Eslami will play simultaneously against Polaris in separate rooms. At the end of each match, Laak and Eslami will combine their chip totals and compare them against Polaris' combined total. The professionals will earn cash for each match they win.

Laak, a former World Series of Poker champion and host of the Mojo TV program I Bet You, is taking the challenge seriously. He intends to put in up to 40 hours of practice play during the week leading up to the match.

"I am going to get in the zone. They'll be getting my best game," said Laak. "I am treating this with all seriousness - it would be very embarrassing if Prince Ali broke even but the Unabomber got whacked. If we have an amazing showing, I want the headline to be a testament to the guys at the U of A - that they designed a program that can play on terms with phenomenal players."

Laak says he's familiar with the artificial intelligence poker programs by Schaeffer and Darse Billings, who earned his PhD here last November.

"There is a part of me, deep down inside, that is a nerd," Laak said. "When I come home at the end of the day I don't turn on the TV and watch sports, I read. And what do I read? I read about science and technology stuff."

Laak has been aware of U of A poker research for some time, citing Loki, the name of an early version of Billing's poker software.

"The first time I saw a picture of Darse Billings with that Loki thing I was like 'My God!' The hair on my arms stood up and I was like - jealous. If I could clone myself and fire off a couple of versions of myself out into the world, one would be a philosopher, the other would be a tech guy working with Darse Billings and Jonathan Schaeffer."

During the July competition, each match will consist of 500 hands, with the cards dealt in duplicate, meaning that the Polaris program will receive the same cards in one room that the professional will receive in the other room and vice versa. The duplicate system will be employed in order to balance out the luck of the cards and emphasize the capabilities of the participants.

Laak, who has played against earlier versions of the software in competitions that didn't eliminate the luck factor, is looking forward to the new format.

"I can never slaughter it, and it can never slaughter me. But it can show it is seven per cent better than me or that I am three per cent better than it," he said. "My goal is to show that slippage in my game is minimal or none."

"How good is Polaris? I don't know, but we should be able to learn a lot about our program in Vancouver this summer," Schaeffer said. "It's going to be a lot of fun."